News & Commentary, Stage

Adelaide Fringe Festival review wrap # 1

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Holden Street Theatres in the inner Adelaide suburb of Hindmarsh has slowly emerged as one of the Adelaide Fringe’s key venues for theatre outside of the CBD.Audiences have grown accustomed to its solid, handpicked offerings from the international fringe circuit, most especially Edinburgh.  
One such production (pictured above) this year is Blood at the Root, New York playwright Dominique Morisseau’s lean, rambunctious take on the 2006 Jena Six controversy during which a group of black Louisiana high school students were charged with the attempted murder of white student Justin Barker after nooses were hung from a tree in the school courtyard.
The play’s title is taken from the lyrics of Strange Fruit, Abel Meeropol’s lynching-inspired dirge that was elevated to a civil rights anthem by Billie Holiday: ‘Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze…’.
Morisseau and director Steve Broadnax have distilled the story of the Jena Six, with its incendiary Jim Crow overtones, into a taut, hip hop and physical theatre-infused schoolroom drama. The young ensemble — five graduates and one undergraduate from the commissioning Penn State School of Theatre —  look more comfortable with the play’s naturalism than its infrequent forays into a kind of street verse but are otherwise can’t be faulted. Each of Morisseau’s sharply defined characters emerges whole and breathing,packed with rough energy and expertly teased out nuance.
As with the recent Ferguson unrest, the Jena Six incident showed the effortlessness with which the scab that lightly conceals America’s racial fault lines can be bloodied. If the play ends on a didactic note, the ensemble assembled in close-fisted defiance of the disproportionate sentences handed down to the Six, it is all too easy to forgive. The United States remains, after all, a country in which black males are routinely sent to prison more often and for longer than white males guilty of the same crime. Blood at the Root is a timely, well-wrought and, above all, deeply humane intervention in the racial politics of a nation that remains, 50 years after the abolition of segregation laws, riven by unequal justice. It will, I think, go over particularly well with high school students who I hope turn up to see it in droves.
Also worth seeing at Holden Street is Kinski and I(though this one is a strictly adults-only affair). The set up is simple — C.J Johnson reads from the unexpurgated autobiography of German actor Klaus Kinsky against a backdrop of well-chosen footage from Kinsky’s vast filmography — but the subject is anything but. Johnson’s extracts, read from a tablet in a passable German accent and interposed with his own, frank annotations, reveal the actor to have been a demonically volatile and sex-obsessed egomaniac. The prose blazes likesome embittered  fusion of Kerouac and Miller.


Kinsky found fame in the 1970s via one of film’s most fertile and tempestuous actor-director partnerships — with Werner Herzog, who directed the actor in, among others, Aguirre: The Wrath of GodWoyzeck, and Nosferatu the Vampyre. Kinsky wrote of Herzog, in a passage that Johnson performs with some relish, that the director was ‘a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, cowardly creep’. Herzog, in turn, has said that he once seriously contemplated firebombing Kinsky’s house with him in it.
In Kinsky and I, however, little impedes the full flow of the actor’s epic rage and material and sexual appetites.Herzog, for example, we get to know only through Kinsky’s demented filter. Meanwhile, the actor’s view of himself, though outwardly candid, often smacks of calculated hyperbole and sheer phantasmagorical invention. Johnson informs us, in one of his more fanboyish asides, that Herzog has confirmed the truth of some of what Kinsky wrote in All I Need Is Love but the director is also on the record as saying that the book is ‘highly fictitious’, and that — contrary to anything that is related here — the actor was capable of ‘warmth’.
Johnson doesn’t acknowledge, either, what Herzog and others have elsewhere: that Kinsky’s fidelity to the truth did not extend as far as his mania for the kind often sensationalism that was not only a central plank of his character but that he thought necessary to ensure the book’s commercial success (the bowdlerised version,Kinski Uncut, was a worldwide bestseller on its release in 1988).

The show’s limitations are, to be fair, dictated by the narrow emotional and thematic ranges of its source material. Kinsky fascinates as both man and monster but the seedy, repetitive tales of sexual outrageousness and professional disharmony start to numb rather than entertainingly shock. The only dissenting voice, and it is a necessary one, belongs to Pola, Kinsky’s eldest daughter, played by Jess Bush via a live video feed. In 2013, Pola published her own memoir, Kindermund, in which she alleged Kinsky repeatedly sexually abused and raped her between the ages of five and 19. Yes, Johnson is a fan — but this is no hagiography. The extracts from Pola’s book serve not only to provide dramaturgical balance but also to cast an ineradicable shadow over Kinski’s life and legacy.
Johnson implores those who haven’t seen Kinski’s collaborations with Herzog to do so with all speed. It’s a testament to the show’s implicit, gripping dualities — genius and madness, admiration and revulsion —  that I intend on doing so knowing that separating Kinsky’s on screen grotesques from the man himself will not be easy.
Turning to something immeasurably lighter, Adelaide’s isthisyours? is presenting the cheeky, nostalgic The Awkward Years at the newly expanded Royal Croquet Club site on Victoria Square/Tarndanyangga. The venue is The Rastelli, a tiny tent named after juggler and vaudeville star Enrico Rastelli and aesthetically inspired by Russian abstract artist Kandinsky.
The show, hosted by isthisyours? founding member Ellen Steele, is an appropriately booze-sodden trip down memory lane to a wincingly familiar pubescent party, vodka, Jack Daniels and the inevitable Galliano the thirst-quenchers of choice, the roller coaster of teenage desire and desperation proving no less head spinning.

Ellen Steele in 'The Awkward Years'
Ellen Steele in ‘The Awkward Years’

A giant clock counts down the show’s all-too-brief 20 minutes as Steele, in the space of a single, contracted evening, drinks too much, falls in and out of love, rails incoherently against her best friend, and finally disappoints (not angers) her parents. The show gleefully trades on the assumption that we’ve all been there — I strongly suspect we have.
Along the way, a guided group meditation unearths schoolyard  memories, the audience plays a running game of pass the parcel, and two strangers become romantically entangled in the gloom, a reminder of those first, furtive hookups that somehow never leave us (no matter how drunk we were).
Though slightly underdeveloped, and a bit too short to really hit its stride, The Awkward Years is nevertheless a hoot. Bring a drink and a friend — or maybe that someone you’ve had your eye on for a while. 
Over at unofficial Fringe hub Tuxedo Cat, for the second year located at Hyde Street’s Raj House, I caught Caleb Lewis’s multi-layered rom com  Destroyer of Worlds.
On one level the play — a rough and ready, semi-autobiographical sketch of the breakdown of a relationship — feels like quintessential fringe fare but it quickly proves both more eccentric and more ambitious than that. Multiple narratives, one of them meta, slip in and out of focus as the couple at its centre (loosely based on Lewis’s fraught, and ultimately failed, relationship with a woman called Lauren) self combusts from the point at which they stand in a video shop, torn between her preference (Ice Storm) and his (Godzilla).
The 200 foot Japanese monster lizard, originally conceived as a metaphor for nuclear weapons, is one of the figures that stalks the play — the others are a terminally ill Robert Oppenheimer, Haruo Nakajima, the renowned ‘suit actor’ who portrayed Godzilla in multiple films throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and, finally, playwright and director himself, Lewis, who belligerently interrupts the action when he doesn’t like the way things are going between his and Lauren’s onstage analogues (played by Phil Spencer and Rebecca Mayo). There is one further character — Lewis’sendearing mother, who appears in video inserts answering questions from her son about love and Lauren (and whether or not she knows who Oppenheimer was, or what Godzilla is supposed to be).


Destroyer of Worlds is, if this précis hasn’t made it clear, a challenging play to get a handle on. Lewis, in his program note, likens it to a tapestry but it is more like a patchwork quilt, continually unpicked and reconstructed in front of our eyes, the sum of its constituent elements hard to make out. Themes and images with the power of metaphor arise and fade and are continually undercut  — the idea, for example, that a nuclear explosion could function as a viable symbol for the breaking up of a couple is explicitly ridiculed and yet the couple’s final separation is compared to the splitting of an atom. In any case, human folly, on scales both grand and small, is a key theme. The other is the ethics involved in the telling of other people’s stories.
I found Spencer’s agile performance deeply compelling but was not as convinced by Mayo who was less well able to navigate the play’s startling transitions between idioms. No matter — Lewis’s dense, lyrical writing and elliptical approach to a familiar scenario make for a captivating 60 minutes.
Also at Tuxedo Cat, though hard to recommend, is the black comedy Tripped by Melbourne-based company Attic Erratic. Written by Nick Musgrove, it is a self-professed ‘love letter’ to Alex Buzo’s Australian New Wave classic Norm and Ahmed. Musgrove’s protagonists borrow Buzo’s names and, loosely, their narrative arc from cross-cultural friendship to violent, wrenching denouement.
Soldier Norm (Angus Brown) is, for reasons unexplained, on patrol with army chaplain Mike (Liam O’Kane) somewhere in the desert of what is presumably Afghanistan when Norm steps on a reconstituted Soviet land mine. Moments later, Mike is gunned down by an assailant who turns out to be Ahmed (Ezel Doruk), a local civilian. He too winds up on a land mine and the two men, unable to move for fear of imminent death,slowly set about bridging the cultural chasm that exists between them.

WEBTripped-Adelaide-Fringe-Image-_EFUL_GUIDE__EFUL_WEBIt’s a baldly contrived set up that might have beenpossible to accept in a different play but here it sinks, inexcusably, into a morass of stylistic confusion, unsophisticated humour and clumsy political commentary. The play often has the feel of a misfiring comedy sketch or an overextended ‘Short and Sweet’ entry; either way, it is a deeply problematic vehicle for engaging with either the legacy of Buzo’s play or the divisive issues it so desperately wants to have something to say about. Only Doruk’s charismatic performance as Ahmed is of interest.


I did enjoy Eleanor’s Story: An American Girl In Hitler’s Germany, a monodrama adapted from the autobiography of performer Ingrid Garner’s grandmother. It is on until 28 February at Gluttony, the cluster of tents and other temporary performance spaces located at RymillPark/Murlawirrapurka in Adelaide’s East End.
Eleanor is nine in 1939 when, for business reasons, her family relocates from Stratford, Connecticut, to Berlin.En route aboard the SS Hamburg an announcement is made: Germany has invaded Poland. A second worldwide conflagration in the space of half a century looks set to erupt. Eleanor settles into a kind of bifurcated life once in Berlin, both patriotic, homesick American and Hitler Youth member (for the exercise, not the politics). Later, as the Battle of Berlin explodes, Soviet atrocities following hard on the heels of those of the Nazis, Eleanor is compelled (not to mention implored by her imperious mother) to grow up quickly.


Like the book on which it is based, Eleanor’s Story is part-wartime memoir, part-coming of age story, a harrowing and richly detailed account of a young life lived in permanent crisis. Garner seemed uncertain of herself at first but her performance, like her character, builds inexorably. I would only like to see director Craig Tyrl do more to rein in her impulse to endlessly shuffle, a slight distraction from what is otherwise a skilful and diligent performance that is a fitting tribute to a remarkable life.
[box] The Adelaide Fringe Festival is on until March 15[box]

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